In Saudi Arabia triathlon may be a relatively new sport — or three sports in one — but it’s quickly catching on in a country where people are increasingly encouraged to shed a sedentary lifestyle and take up physical activities.
There’s no better promotor for the sport, among females and males, than Arwa Al-Amoudi, head of the women’s committee at the Saudi Arabian Triathlon Federation, and a triathlete herself.
“I started triathlon in 2017. Before that, I used to be a runner. I was the kind of person who would overtrain myself, and then I would get injuries,” she said. “But when I heard about the sport of triathlon, you know you have to swim, cycle and run, I said, okay, let me try it. And that’s the reason I tried triathlon from 2017, and then I got hooked on it. Just because of its diversity, you never get bored, every day you have different training in different sports.”
While running remains her strongest discipline, Al-Amoudi has now embraced all aspects of the triathlon.
“Actually, each one of them gives me a different kind of enjoyment,” the 35-year-old Jeddah resident said. “But if we’re talking about specifics, I would say it (running) is the easiest for me to improve, just because I have a longer history in it, years of running. Not only that, but also my body build, I tend to be petite and small, so it’s just easier for me to get faster and faster relative to people who are bigger in shape and density.”
Arguably, swimming is the hardest of the three sports to excel at for most newcomers.
“I would agree with that,” said Al-Amoudi. “Swimming I would say, if the person doesn’t have that basic foundation, from a younger age, it would be a bit harder to develop at an older age. But here we are, I started swimming at a later age, and what I had to do is just invest more time, of course, in swimming, relative to other people who have been swimming for years and years. But then, at the end of the day, if you are consistent, and this is the beauty of triathlon … it’s all about consistency, if you are consistent about it, then you will see the improvement.”
Al-Amoudi’s role at the national umbrella body has two main objectives.
“First is to spread awareness about the sport of triathlon, specifically among the female community, and in general among the whole community,” she said. “The second thing is, of course, we want to recruit talented females with the focus on the younger generation, because we have a long-term vision of having people represent us overseas, where they can also win and get podiums one day.”
With these medium-to-long term plans in place, the federation last month set up a 21-day training camp for 10 of its most promising triathletes, six male and four female.
The choice of Abha was very deliberate, Al-Amoudi said.
“It was three weeks in duration and the reason it was in Abha is because it is different than other cities,” she said. “Most of our athletes, they come from either the west region, in Jeddah or Riyadh, and Al-Sharqiyah. There are a few who live at altitude, but the majority they live in these major cities. The thing is that with these cities, they are at sea level and then when you go to Abha, it’s at a higher altitude.”
“So when you train at a higher altitude both the air pressure and density decreases, which makes it harder for the lungs, or which makes it harder to take in oxygen,” she added. “So we are taking these athletes to train at a higher altitude, so they can train their lungs to improve their oxygen intake. So when they race at sea level it becomes much easier.”
“As long as our athletes get the benefit of this, and then they leverage these trainings, I believe that they will see a marginal benefit in the short term and also in the long term.”
Already, Al-Amoudi sees a rising interest in the sport, despite its relative infancy, in particular among females.
“Actually, we already see the sport is growing, because (of) the local initiatives. Also with the support of the federation and the events that they are doing all year long, you see from one event to another an increase in participation,” she said. “You will also see diversity, whether it’s local or expat, whether it’s female or male. The beauty of triathlon, it’s an individual sport yet you can still do it in a team, or relay team.”
“Sometimes we see a family join as a team. So the son would be swimming, the father would be cycling and the wife or the daughter would be running.”
It’s all about building a community of triathletes, something the federation is keen to promote at grassroots level.
“Of course, this is part of our long-term plan,” she said. “As of now we are trying to build the community, and find the talent and of course, getting our triathletes to get the exposure. The good thing the federation is doing (are) the races, locally. So people are getting the feeling of how these races are contested and there they are getting the exposure, of racing with different people. Not only this, but also our athletes, some of them, are racing overseas and with this they will (be) building their experience.”
At a more competitive level, Al-Amoudi is keen to highlight that while there are events in the GCC and across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is increasingly holding enough races for its growing population of triathletes.
“Yes, and there are competitions at a regional level, but also when we look at a local level here within the Kingdom, the federation has been doing an amazing job, and in Q4 we have multiple races for all people here, and the beauty of it is that it’s in all locations,” she said. “So in Q4, we will have a race in Jeddah, and we will have a race in Riyadh, and we will have races in the eastern region as well.
“Sometimes, of course, people want to participate regionally and globally, or outside the Kingdom, but where the federation has done an amazing job is by providing or contesting races here at the local level. So a person like me, I don’t need to travel multiple times outside Saudi Arabia just to race. When I want to race more, I can get the experience … by racing right here.”